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Conservation plan for 460 acres of PG&E lands between Lyons and Sonora on tap


Guy McCarthy/Union Democrat The crest of Lyons Dam was dry Sept. 30, 2016 while some water was released from the reservoir at the bottom of the dam.

A move to ensure public access to 460 acres of watershed lands owned by Pacific Gas and Electric between Lyons Reservoir and Phoenix Powerhouse is going to come before the Pacific Forest and Watershed Lands Stewardship Council next week.

The council is a private, nonprofit foundation established in 2004 in a PG&E settlement that was part of the utility giant’s reorganization, three years after Pacific Gas and Electric Company filed for bankruptcy in April 2001.

The settlement requires PG&E to cooperate with the Stewardship Council and local conservation nonprofits to ensure perpetual protection of 140,000 acres of watershed lands up and down the Central Sierra and elsewhere in the Golden State.

The 460 acres of utility-owned lands between Lyons Reservoir and Phoenix Powerhouse will be monitored by people with the Mother Lode Land Trust, a Jackson-based nonprofit established in 1990.

“The project includes several different parcels, from Lyons down to Sonora at the Phoenix Powerhouse,” Ellie Routt, executive director for Mother Lode Land Trust, said Wednesday in a phone interview. “In Twain Harte, for example, there’s a trail along the Tuolumne Main Canal the public uses, and that would be permanently protected as a recreation asset.”

Routt said the ditch trail is presently protected to the extent that PG&E allows the public to use it, but that is at the utility’s discretion. A conservation easement contract would ensure public access continues.

The Stewardship Council board is scheduled to hear about the conservation plan at a public meeting scheduled from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Wednesday at Tsakopoulos Library Galleria-West Room, 828 I Street, Sacramento. Council staff are recommending approval of a Lyons plan, a conservation easement contract, and a funding agreement between the council and Mother Lode Land Trust.

A 100-page Lyons Land Conservation and Conveyance Plan describes the land as being in the South Fork Stanislaus and Sullivan Creek watersheds. PG&E owns the property and pays taxes on it, but the Mother Lode Land Trust holds a conservation easement.

The property surrounds Lyons Reservoir, the Main Tuolumne Canal, and Phoenix Powerhouse, but the parcels are not contiguous.

Beginning at Lyons, there’s a 365-acre parcel that encircles the reservoir and Lyons Dam, a 4-acre parcel just east of the reservoir, a 41-acre parcel downstream on the flumes and ditches of the Tuolumne Main Canal, a 39-acre section farther down the ditch system labeled “Section 4 Canal Fishing Access,” two one-acre parcels, a 5-acre parcel at Phoenix Penstock, and a 4-acre parcel at Phoenix Powerhouse.

The Lyons plan says the property is to be protected for fish habitat, wildlife and plants that are native to the area, and all species protected under state and federal endangered species acts. Forest lands in the area are dominated by ponderosa pine, sugar pine, white fir, Douglas fir and incense cedar. Also to be protected are the so-called scenic viewshed and outdoor recreation.

Recreation activities at Lyons are described as limited to May 1 to Oct. 31, and include bank angling, hiking, picnicking, horseback riding and bicycling. Boating, swimming and wading are not allowed at Lyons to protect the water supply.

Hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding on Sugar Pine Railroad grade are popular. The area around Phoenix Powerhouse has no recreational facilities. The existing fishing access at the Section 4 Canal in Twain Harte already has parking.

The Stewardship Council board will also be asked to approve a funding agreement with the Mother Lode Land Trust, so the local nonprofit’s staff can monitor PG&E and ensure public access on the Lyons parcels.

“Part of this contract with PG&E is we go out annually to ensure they are abiding by the contract,” Routt said. “So we need funding to go out there and make sure they keep trails open, to monitor the conservation value, including public access.”

Pacific Gas and Electric Company reserves rights in the conservation easement to maintain and operate existing and future utility facilities over portions of the parcels, according to the Lyons plan. The conservation easement includes specific hydro reserved rights.

In April 2001, PG&E was $9 billion in debt and in failed bailout talks with state officials when the utility giant filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. At the time, Pacific Gas and Electric Company debts were increasing at a rate of $300 million a month.

The bankruptcy filing — described at the time as the third-largest in U.S. history — did not affect the utility's parent company, PG&E Corp., or any other PG&E division. Executives with the utility said they expected no disruptions in service to their 13 million customers, and they did not expect to lay off any of their 20,000 employees.

Today, Pacific Gas and Electric Company is an investor-owned utility with publicly traded stock, headquartered in San Francisco. More than $6 billion of the utility’s market value has evaporated since the October fires in Northern California broke out a month ago. As of Wednesday evening, PGE’s market capitalization still exceeded $28 billion.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter @GuyMcCarthy.